Shine more sunlight on plans to mine near treasured Okefenokee

August 20, 2019 8:30 am

An Alabama company’s plan to strip mine near the Okefenokee refuge is raising concerns it might harm local water quality. Photo by Frank Kehren, courtesy of Creative Commons.

It’s not surprising that the Charlton County Commission late last week passed a non-binding resolution to endorse a mining company’s plan to dig little more than a couple of miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. But state and federal officials with oversight responsibility for protecting Georgia’s unique and precious natural areas should be more circumspect.

Charlton has a poverty rate of 23%. Compare that to the statewide average of just under 17%, and you can see why those county commissioners are desperate to create jobs for the people they represent.

Twin Pines Minerals says the strip mine it wants to build on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp will create as many as 300 jobs paying about $20 per hour. That works out to about $70 more than the county’s average weekly paycheck of $727. That could improve the fortunes and the futures of the people who could get those jobs during the six or seven years of the mining project.

But the officials charged with looking out for Georgia’s future must understand it’s too little economic return at much too high a cost. They should know better than to allow any project that would put at risk Georgia’s world-renowned natural resource, filled with rare plants and wildlife, including gopher tortoises and indigo snakes. Even if you do the simple math, it’s a bad deal: Georgia doesn’t even impose a severance tax like other states when companies extract valuable minerals from our soil.

The Birmingham, Ala. mining company started talking with federal regulators last year about plans to extract titanium dioxide from the sand on Okefenokee’s periphery. The mineral is used as a pigment in white paint, paper and other materials. In July, the Army Corps of Engineers said it is considering the permit request from Twin Pines, which initially wants to mine a 2,400-acre area but is interested in expanding that to 12,000 acres. The company would dig up to 70 feet deep.

Twin Pines’ proposal is smaller than the 38,000-acre strip mine DuPont tried to dig two decades ago. But it’s stirring up unpleasant flashbacks for those who remember what it took to protect the Okefenokee back then.

The Georgia Recorder reported from a public meeting in Folkston—one of two that Twin Pines held last week—where protestors called for scientific details about the impact the mining company’s planned project could have on the swamp.

Two nights later, in the same building, Charlton commissioners signaled their support of the mine.

The Corps is taking public comment on the plan through through Sept. 12 (email: [email protected]). Twin Pines says they might share their findings after the public comment period closes. That transparency-reducing sidestep is not what you would expect from a company lauding its “incredibly environmentally responsible” approach.  

Clearly, Twin Pines needs to release its studies and the “unprecedented amount” of geological and hydrologic information the mining firm’s consultants say they’ve gathered. And it should do so immediately—before the current public comment period ends.  

Then the officials looking out for the public’s best interests should do their own homework on the risks—and make their findings easily accessible to the public, as federal and state law requires.

A memo from The U.S. Fish and Wildlife to the Corps already sounds the alarm. It describes “substantial risk” to the Okefenokee if the mining project moves forward. In the February memo, Fish and Wildlife warned that mining at the swamp’s edge could harm the entire expanse of the refuge, and digging deep into the soil could alter “water holding and water movement.”

Long-term plans call for the miners to return the sifted sand to the mining site after titanium dioxide and other valuable minerals are extracted, changing the soil’s distinct layers. That would threaten gopher tortoise and indigo snake habitats.

Local governments like the Charlton Commission don’t get to decide the fate of the Okefenokee. State and federal officials looking out for much broader interests do. And they need to act. Many who were around when DuPont was trying to dig alongside the Okefenokee point to a 1997 site visit by then-U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as the catalyst for getting the chemical company to drop its plan. Babbitts argument: “Titanium is a common mineral, while the Okefenokee is a very uncommon swamp.”

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John McCosh
John McCosh

John McCosh, Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned writer and editor with decades of experience in journalism and government public affairs. His skills were forged in Georgia newsrooms, where he was a business and investigative reporter, editor and bureau chief, and expanded his experience during years in nonprofit and corporate communications roles. McCosh is a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and active in the Georgia State Signal Alumni Group, which advises student journalists.